Gumbo. Just the mention of the word makes your mouth water. You might just go to Shreveport to have a bowl at The Blind Tiger, or maybe drive a U-Haul van to Dallas to help someone move, ending the day with a stop at Pappadeaux for a cup. Better yet, jump on Southwest Airline’s appropriately named “Gumbo Jet” to New Orleans solely for the promised gumbo in just about any restaurant in the city. You’ll do nearly anything to savor a bowl of this magnificent stew.
Gumbo originated in Louisiana – a combination of the contribution of the African slaves who introduced us to okra, the French/Canadian settlers who gave us “roux” (the oil and flour base of gumbo) and Spanish influence of the “holy Trinity” (a savory combination of celery, onions and sweet peppers). With only those three ingredients, you’re almost there. With the exception of beef, you can add just about any kind of meat or seafood as long as you have the above mentioned necessities. This was as economical a hundred years ago as it is now: Leftover pork chops? Chicken legs? Smoked sausage? Chop the meat and throw it in. Been hunting lately? Try some rabbit, venison or wild boar gumbo. Just don’t tell the kids about those last three.
Recipes for gumbo are abundant, either on the internet or in Grandma’s old cookbook. I won’t pretend that mine is any better but I will tell you a few pointers which apply to any gumbo recipe.
1. Preparation: Have all the necessary vegetables, meats, seafood and broth prepared ahead of time. Once the roux is ready, the rest of the process goes very quickly. There is no time to do more chopping!
2. Fish stock or water: While preparing your ingredients, put the shrimp shells/peels in a saucepan. Cover them with water and gently boil for about 10 minutes. Strain the liquid and use this instead of plain water or heavier fish stock. The flavor of the gumbo will not be overwhelmed by fish flavors, nor will it be bland.
3. Roux: The most important part of gumbo making, the roux must be stirred constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan preferably with a wooden spoon or large Creuset spatula. It takes at least 30 minutes for the roux to finally (and then quite suddenly!) turn chocolate brown. This is the desired color. To prevent the roux from burning and becoming bitter from even one extra minute of cooking, fill your sink with an inch of cold water and, as soon as the chocolate brown color is achieved, remove the pan from the heat and place it in the sink. But do keep stirring! When the roux has cooled down and the color is stabilized, put the pan back on a low burner and continue with your recipe.
4. Music: Put on your favorite CD because you’ll be standing at the stove for a while. In fact, get into the rhythm while you stir. Healthy.
5. Okra: This is a natural thickener. The addition of “Gumbo File” (ground Sassafras) is not necessary when you’re using okra in your gumbo. But the File makes a pleasant decoration at the table, in a small finger bowl for your family and guests to sprinkle on their individual bowls. Place the bowl right next to the Tabasco sauce.
6. Seafood: Do NOT add the seafood until about 5 minutes prior to serving! If you add it with the meats and/or sausages, the shrimp tend to become rubbery, the small crabs disintegrate and the flavor of the gumbo is not improved.
Do you have a favorite gumbo recipe? Send it to me!